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As the EU elections approach, can we be European if not in the European Union?


Irene Oldfather asks: what role for the UK going forward?

“Europe will not be made all at once or according to a single plan, it will be built on concrete achievements which first create solidarity.”

The words of Robert Schuman, French foreign minister - the architect of the Schuman plan, who on the 9th May 1950 shared his vision to bring together the bruised and battered post war economies of France and Germany to create a Coal and Steel Community. In his view this would ensure that working together towards a common economic goal would also enable the cooperation that would bring a lasting peace.

Now, 74 years later and with 10 candidate countries queuing up to join the present 27, is there anything we can learn from Schuman’s thinking? And what role does the UK play not just in a post Brexit Europe but also across the globe?

One of the greatest strengths of our various alliances with Europe is our shared values and principles, which guide us through common challenges such as the current era marked by war in Ukraine and volatility in the Middle East. Even when global risks escalate, European countries remain united by a common commitment to democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law.

In this context today, there is a discussion to be had as to what potentially constitutes 'Europe' as opposed to the 'European Union' and what role the UK can potentially play. For example, the UK/US ‘special relationship’ could support the UK being integral to a wider EU 'neighbours' geopolitical framework.  

Is it time for the concept of the European Union to be framed alongside a new geopolitical context of the European neighbourhood where a future UK could be a key player? What could, for example, a 'neighbourhood' coalition look like and could a post UK election, Labour leaning UK begin to frame such cooperation?

Often in past, arguments in the UK for greater cooperation with Europe have reflected on the single market and therefore have been seen through an economic lens. Our EU neighbours' proximity is primarily considered in terms of market access to the world’s largest trade bloc and the benefits that frictionless trade can bring to our economy.  An understandable argument not easily resolved in the short term.

While these economic benefits were rejected by the UK population in a Brexit vote, does there remain, building on the UK’s unique ex-member and near neighbour position, an opportunity to contribute to a bigger geopolitical and citizens framework?

In this context it’s worth considering the positive impact of two things – the impact that can be made when constructive conversations and good relations are cemented between our citizens and secondly the backdrop of an everchanging globe where intercontinental relationships will play an increasingly bigger role.

On the citizens’ side, the EU Delegation in London and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) are both actively engaging civil society in the UK, including and in particular their ongoing work to hear the voices of UK young people and citizens, and this stands out as a model for cooperation and engagement. These initiatives are accompanied by practical efforts to re-engage with the UK on key initiatives that strengthen civil society and thus Europe as a whole.

Further evidence of progress emerges from the recent commitment to rejoin Horizon Europe, which will strengthen endeavours in research, innovation and beyond, benefitting the UK, Europe and the world. The EESC has recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Scottish Advisory Forum on Europe, opening up the opportunity to join and participate in dialogue about cooperation for future opportunities.

Another positive development is the European Commission proposal to open mobility to 18 to 30 year olds from the EU and UK. If accepted, the proposals would allow millions of young people to work, study and live in either the EU or the UK for up to four years. Without access to Erasmus+, there is very limited opportunity for young people to benefit from cultural exchange, knowledge sharing and relationship building.

These positive UK-EU renewed ties were summed up perfectly by the EU Ambassador to the UK, Pedro Serrano, who recently said that the UK-EU relationship is “turning a new page”.

In terms of the geopolitical arena, a new UK government could intensify its efforts as global peacemaker and relationship builder. The kind of role suited to a new foreign secretary with particularly good US relations.

Looking ahead, it feels like the words of Schuman are as true now as they were then.

Concrete achievements on Horizon, youth mobility and citizens’ rights are within our grasp. The UK is uniquely placed to have a positive and constructive relationship if not as a member of the European Union at least in the short term but as a nation of Europe. Scotland and Scottish civil society stand ready to play their part.

Irene Oldfather is director of strategic partnerships, external affairs and outreach for Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland (the ALLIANCE); chair of the Scottish Advisory Forum on Europe; and vice-chair of the UK Domestic Advisory Group on the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.



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4 days ago

Given that the Conservatives, Labour and Libdems are all ANTI Europe and pro-Brexshit, totally at odds with what Scotland voted for and wishes, then any vote for an English based party will mean austerity and all the harm of Brexshit will carry on, no matter who enters No10.